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Peter Hoskin: Margaret Thatcher, screen icon

Do you remember when James Bond met Margaret Thatcher? Actually, “met” is probably too strong a word. And, come to think of it, it wasn’t really 007. But, whatever, it happened at the end of For Your Eyes Only (1981), when Roger Moore’s Bond had disrobed to enjoy a moonlit swim with the restrainedly named (for a Bond girl) Melina Havelock. Locked in lust and liquid, the spy disregards an incoming call to his boat from No.10. And so Mrs T, played by the impressionist Janet Brown, ends up conveying the nation’s gratitude to a blue macaw. Skyfall this was not.

But, a year before the Falklands War, this was one of the earliest screen depictions of PM Thatcher. And, in some respects, it was typical of what would follow. Although Janet Brown made her name with impressions of the Iron Lady – so much so, in fact, that she titled her autobiography Prime Mimicker – this is more a caricature, and a rather off one at that. The hairstyle is perfect, the elongated vowels are present, but the be-aproned bustle about the kitchen is probably overdoing it. And then Denis stumbles in, and smiles into camera, with drink and cigarette in hand.

Of course, caricature and mockery are intrinsic parts of British politics – and healthy parts, on the whole – but they clung to Margaret Thatcher like a sticky-back power suit. Two years after For Your Eyes Only, she would feature in an episode of Are You Being Served? (1972 – 1985), nothing more than an extended hand with a voice attached. And then, a year after that, came Spitting Image (1984 – 1996), and that famous puppet with its high-arch lips and eyebrows, and its almost demonic stare. Apparently, that show’s creators tried to make their Thatcher-marionette look and act more evil with each new series.

What’s most striking, now and then, about the Spitting Image version of Thatcher is how it put the “male” into “Britain’s first ever female Prime Minister”. This wasn’t Janet Brown’s prim housewife, but a pinstripe-wearing, cigar-chomping, urinal-standing alpha politician, mercilessly extrapolated from that line about her being the only man in Edward Heath’s Cabinet. She was even voiced by a man, Steve Nallon, who would repeat the trick – in drag – for another television series, The New Statesman (1987 – 1992). All very cruel, perhaps. But there are plenty of Thatcher-era veterans who think that, against all intentions, Spitting Image actually bolstered her premiership – by promulgating the idea that she was an implacable, dominant force.

Although there were some early attempts to depict Thatcher in all seriousness – for example, a couple of episodes of World in Action in which journalists, including one Christopher Huhne, played out events from her first term – it really took the end of her premiership for the dramatic actresses to show up. First broadcast on 11th September 1991, Thatcher: The Final Days was a rather bloodless docu-drama, designed to tell of what had happened less than a year previously. Sylvia Syms’ Iron Lady is too much iron and not enough lady. Hers is an atypically cold performance, conveying little of the tumult and torment of the days at hand.

Since then, and particularly in the last decade, we’ve had a relative barrage of Thatcher biopics. In 2002, we finally saw a television production of Ian Curteis’s The Falklands Play, which had originally been shelved by the BBC in the Eighties, allegedly because it cast the then Prime Minister in too flattering a light. 2009 brought another account of her political demise, with Margaret. And then, of course, in 2011, came The Iron Lady, and that heavily garlanded performance by Meryl Streep. All of these managed to raise collective eyebrows – The Iron Lady, for instance, for showing a Thatcher struck by Alzheimer’s – but all offer sympathy, rather than outright antipathy, for their subject. Whither the demon?

More straightforwardly enjoyable – although loosest with the available facts – is The Long Walk to Finchley (2008), which imagines, as its subtitle puts it, “how Maggie might have done it” back in the late Forties and early Fifties. This is equal parts Mad Men, Coronation Street and Question Time, yet somehow it works, with a Thatcher that is both coquettish and combative. But the real thing to marvel at is the on-screen political development of its lead, Andrea Riseborough, who went from playing a scrabbling Labour researcher to Margaret Thatcher in less than a year. Now that’s what I call progress.

Of course, it hasn’t all been nicely, nicely since 1990 – but the fiercest cinematic attacks on Lady Thatcher, or her politics, have largely kept her in the background. They’ve locked their puppets away, so to speak. This is how it is in any number of Ken Loach films. And this is how it is in Billy Elliot (2000), which is set during the miners’ strike of 1984-85, and which gained a song called ‘Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher’ (sample lyric: “We all celebrate today / Cause it’s one day closer to your death”) in its translation to the stage. For many in the arts, the cultural battles of the Eighties are still there to be fought.

And that just about sums it up: whether it’s Billy Elliot or The Iron Lady, few Prime Ministers have had as much screen time as Margaret Thatcher. By my reckoning, only Winston Churchill tops her, while Tony Blair falls short, and David Cameron is out of the running altogether. And what’s more, I doubt a real-life PM will feature in a Bond film ever again. It’s just a shame, for him as much as us in the audience, that 007 wasn’t on the end of the line.


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